Martin Turpin: ‘Bullshitting is human nature in its honest and naked form’ | Psychology

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Martin Turpin is a PhD researcher at the department of psychology at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, who is studying linguistic bullshit. He is the lead author of a recent paper entitled Bullshit Ability As an Honest Signal of Intelligence, which found that people who produce “satisfactory bullshit” are judged to be of high intelligence by their audience.

What made you choose bullshit as a topic to research?
Two main intellectual drives led me here. I think individual human brains are fascinating machines, but there is something far more magical to me about what happens when multiple brains are organised in a network. It can be more rational to have the wrong answer but be part of a group than being a lonely person with the correct answer. That seeming contradiction from the perspective of someone who highly values truth for its own sake makes for a fascinating creature to study.

And the second?
The ordinariness of bullshitting. It’s a great example of humans being humans. Almost everyone understands intuitively what bullshitting is and at some point almost everyone does it, and has it done to them. We use it for advancement, for avoiding hurting one another’s feelings, for play: potentially even training our bullshit detectors together with friends in a form of simulated social combat. I really do love humans and all the quirks that we’ve acquired from our time spent being fed through the evolutionary grinder. Bullshitting – as well as all the other funny things we do to get ahead socially – is human nature in its honest and naked form.

What do you define bullshit as?
The definitions many of us use when studying bullshit and bullshitting scientifically map fairly well on to people’s lay conceptions. Of course, we are under more restrictions to be exact since there is a whole ocean of fellow scientists who will be motivated to detect any bullshitting we attempt!

Bullshitting, as I have tended to study it in my work has been something approximating “communication intended to impress, persuade, convince, etc, without regard or concern for the truth”, taking heavily from [Princeton professor] Harry G Frankfurt’s definition in his famous On Bullshit. A bullshitter may say things that are true, untrue, or so obscure as to be impossible to judge either way. The critical thing is that they don’t necessarily care about the truth. They have goals besides the goal of communicating accurate information.

There’s a rich seam of scientific studies concerned with bullshit. Google Scholar throws up 88,000. Do you have a favourite?
My friend and colleague Shane Litrell has recently done a series of studies finding that people who tend to report bullshitting more in their daily lives also tend to fall for bullshit more easily. I think he may, through this work, put a dent in the wisdom of that old adage “you can’t bullshit a bullshitter”. Though whether you can bullshit an especially good bullshitter may remain an open question.

Your study found bullshitting ability was correlated with intelligence
Correct! In a couple of studies, we gave hundreds of participants a list of concepts and asked them to provide a definition for them. Importantly, some of these terms were made up, and had no “true” definition. For example, “subjunctive scaling”, “declarative fraction”, “genetic autonomy”, “neural acceptance”. We told them that if they didn’t know the definition of a word, they were to make up a definition that would seem convincing and seem satisfying.

We then gave these made up definitions to another sample featuring hundreds of raters. We had each rater judge these made up definitions for how satisfying and accurate the explanations seemed. In the second of the two studies we also asked our raters to judge how intelligent they thought the person who wrote that definition was.

And individuals who produced “satisfying bullshit” were rated as more intelligent by observers
That’s right. On average, the better a participant scored on a series of cognitive tests, the more satisfying their bullshit was judged to be by a sample of raters, and the smarter they appeared to those raters.

Is this a surprising result? Bullshitting requires good vocabulary, general knowledge and imagination… which are also qualities of the intelligent
In some ways it is, but in a more nuanced way than one would assume at first glance. If a person were motivated to be dismissive of our findings, what they might say is something like: “Oh, this is a trivial finding, if you give any random task to a group of people, smarter people are going to do better.”

We observed almost no one who scored low on our cognitive tests but who was capable of producing good bullshit. We did find, however, a decent number of people who scored well on these cognitive tests, but did not produce very good bullshit. If someone is a good bullshitter, they are probably intelligent; intelligence seems to be a prerequisite to being a good bullshitter. However, someone who does not bullshit well is not automatically unintelligent. We draw the analogy to humour. A person who is quick-witted and funny is probably pretty smart. However, many of us probably know people who are absolutely brilliant, but not even a little bit funny. Bullshit may work like this, it seems.

What distinguishes “satisfying bullshit” from the unsatisfying variety?
We don’t know at the moment exactly. Breaking this down specifically would be a fairly involved psycholinguistics study in its own right.

However, we have some good ideas. From a study we conducted, Bullshit Makes the Art Grow Profounder, we drew a comparison between bullshitting and what was described as “International Art English” by Alix Rule and David Levine. It is a term for the way artists, especially abstract, postmodern, or conceptual artists tend to speak about their work. This includes things like hard-to-picture visual metaphors such as “unfolding ideas”, the creation of more complicated nouns such as “globality” or “potentiality”, and favouring longer sentences with many words over the concise. This makes the style of communication harder to process, but there are no obvious cues that it is nonsense right away.

This combines with two notions, one from [Canadian philosopher] Jerry Cohen, who described bullshitting as including an element of “unclarifiable unclarity”, meaning there is simply no way to make sense of some bit of writing or speech. To attempt to do so often involves making many charitable simplifying assumptions on behalf of the author until the interpretation no longer even resembles what was originally said.

Second, there is an effect in psychology, first described by Dan Sperber, known as the “guru effect”. This is where people tend to “judge profound what they fail to grasp”. When something is difficult for us to understand – when it feels like we are exerting a lot of effort in understanding it – there is an assumption that it is meaningful and important.

What gives a lot of bullshit its persuasive edge is probably the combination of confidently expressed but unclarifiable language, as well as vocabulary quirks that don’t give away the deception by being too obvious, but which make the bullshit more difficult to process.

Good bullshit likely requires enough of a “show” so that your audience will attempt to engage with it earnestly, that it passes the “smell” check of not obviously being nonsense, that it sounds impressive, and that there’s no way to really nail it down to in making any particular specific point.

The problem is that the truth is often quite dull. Bullshitters brighten up the day, don’t they?
I think they really do.

Writing and speaking can obviously be appreciated for their aesthetics. There is a certain beauty to the inflated, hyper-complex language that characterises at least some forms of bullshitting. Think of some prominent philosophers, some of the writing is dense and impenetrable but it is also just satisfying aesthetically on some level. We now have to go back and have rigorous debates over whether some of the foundational texts for many of our worldviews are just aesthetic BS. I will refrain from naming any particular suspects so as to spare myself the wrath of people who take such things very seriously.

If you don’t mind me getting a little philosophical. “Truth” is one value among many that we can attempt to maximise. Some of us are configured in such a way that we care about truth for its own sake very deeply. I suspect, in the typical human experience for most of our history, truth was probably pretty low on the list of priorities. People do seem to have a fundamental need for things to “make sense” to them but that is quite different from it being “true”. Although, to any given person, “makes sense” and “true” likely feel like the same thing. Bullshitting sells us things that feel right, or “make sense”.

Your paper says bullshitting may be a more advantageous strategy “in domains in which success depends largely on the subjective evaluations of others (eg art, advertising, politics, life-coaching, journalism, humanities)”. Do you think science is bullshit-free?
I don’t think science is spared by any means. It’s actually sort of funny. When other scientists hear that you study bullshit, there is occasionally a bit of a mocking response, or a scoff. Maybe it’s the vulgarity in the title of the sub-discipline, but people tend to dismiss it as being “cute” or “silly” research. It’s an interesting duality where it’s “silly” to study such behaviour, but simultaneously people are seriously bothered by the amount of bullshitting other scientists do.

There are forms of bullshitting that are specific to science. Work by Kimmo Eriksson has shown that including irrelevant maths equations in abstracts causes people to judge a paper as being higher quality, in what is known as the “nonsense maths effect” – although Stem degree holders did not show the effect.

And work by Deena Weisberg has shown that including irrelevant neuroscience information in explanations of psychological phenomena causes people to judge such explanations to be more satisfying.

Scientists are humans, and the system of science is many things. It is an engine of fact generation, a framework for organising our knowledge about the world, it is a source of fairly cushy jobs for people who are able to play the social game well, and it can be a way to cynically generate information that best supports our favoured ideological views as in what is called “activist science”. Scientists are complicated creatures, and the pressures to succeed may sometimes cause them to sacrifice a commitment to the truth.

That being said, in science there is almost certainly a higher concentration of people who do truly care about discovering and disseminating true information. As such, attempts at bullshitting are at least more likely to be more carefully policed overall.

Do you think of yourself as someone who can produce satisfactory bullshit?
Oh no sir, not I. There is a stereotype in the field of psychology where people who study human memory often have terrible memories themselves. The same is true of people who study bullshit. We are unfortunately doomed to mediocre advancement due to our inability to stray even a little bit from absolute truth. It is simply our cross to bear…

In seriousness, I think I do possess the necessary skills or tendencies to produce – hopefully entertaining or humorous – bullshit, but it’s not something I explicitly pride myself on. I do think I can tell a nice story.

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